Key differences between candidates make Fresno’s race for mayor a must-watch

Fresno Mayor Lee Brand, left, is running for re-election in 2020. Fresno County prosecutor Andrew Janz, right, is challenging Brand and launched his campaign this week.
Fresno Mayor Lee Brand, left, is running for re-election in 2020. Fresno County prosecutor Andrew Janz, right, is challenging Brand and launched his campaign this week. Fresno Bee file

It’s much too early to pick a candidate in the March 2020 race for Fresno mayor, but the two announced candidates have obvious differences that will give voters clear choices.

Incumbent Mayor Lee Brand had eight years of experience on the Fresno City Council before becoming mayor in 2017. Challenger Andrew Janz has never held public office and has not managed a large organization, but is a top prosecutor in the District Attorney’s Office and got closer than any other candidate to defeating longtime Valley congressman Devin Nunes.

Brand is a Republican, Janz is a Democrat. Brand is older, Janz is younger.

An inexperienced candidate typically has no chance against an experienced incumbent. But on the basis of voter registration, Janz will pose a challenge. The city of Fresno is solidly in the Democratic party’s control. Only District 6, in northeast Fresno, has majority GOP voter registration; Republican Garry Bredefeld currently represents the area. District 2, the northwest Fresno section that Steve Brandau just left (he won special election to the county Board of Supervisors) has become purple, with equal numbers of GOP and Democratic voters. The rest of the city is solidly blue.

The question is whether Democrats will turn out to vote. It will be a presidential election year, and in the March primary Democrats will choose who they want to run against President Trump in the fall. So Janz will likely have valuable support if voters turn out.

Janz is no stranger to campaigning against an incumbent. Last year he ran a strong campaign against Nunes, who is one of the top Republicans in Congress and has held office since 2003. Janz raised $9 million for his campaign and got within 6 percentage points of Nunes.

But Janz will need to convince voters he can effectively lead a city of more than 500,000 people, one which faces the major challenges of poverty, crime and a low-wage economy.

Brand has a track record. He is touting bringing thousands of new jobs to town with the opening of the Amazon and Ulta distribution centers in south Fresno. While Brand deservedly can take credit, work to lure the companies began under predecessor Ashley Swearengin.

Brand is also leading a public process for hiring the next police chief — a person will have to be in place once current Chief Jerry Dyer steps down in October.

The incumbent also carries some political baggage, namely his role in helping keep Measure P from succeeding in last fall’s election. The bond measure would have meant guaranteed funding to fix, improve and maintain Fresno’s decrepit parks. The mayor campaigned against it because of how long it would have devoted bond money to a single use. He also wants to hire more police officers to fight crime. While a majority of voters backed Measure P, it did not get the necessary two-thirds support. Brand could face opposition from those who backed the measure.

When Brand ran in 2016, the crowded primary field was headlined by Henry R. Perea, the popular, longtime Democrat then serving on the county board. Brand forced a runoff, and helped by strong fund-raising, overtook Perea in the November race — stunning political observers who thought Perea was a shoo-in.

Then, like now, Democrats held the voter registration edge. But in key parts of town more Republicans turned out to vote than Democrats.

Bottom line: Unexpected things can happen — including more candidates jumping into the race. Voters, sit back and enjoy watching the political wheels turn.